In September 1972, less than a dozen farmers drove from throughout the state of Wisconsin to Madison, setting up a market around the Capitol Square. Fast forward to September 2017, and it’s quite a different sight. More than 150 vendors set up weekly at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, and hold membership with a group that boasts more than 270 vendors total.
As a casual customer, strolling around the Capitol Square on a beautiful Saturday morning, you might not realize just how much effort goes into producing the Dane County Farmers’ Market (DCFM) week after week. That’s thanks to people like Sarah Elliott, the Market Manager, who run a tight ship, week after week. They understand that to operate America’s largest producers-only farmers’ market smoothly, details are everything. And in turn, the market is everything for some farmers.
Sally Murphy, a DCFM member since 1992, says the market saved her family’s farm, as the economy “went to heck” in the 1980s, with prices plunging and interest rates skyrocketing.
“Back in the 80s and 90s, it was tough,” Sally tells me. “So many little farms went out from under. In fact, I think in our area [Soldier’s Grove], there’s hardly anyone left but us.”
The DCFM needed cheese curds and had availability. The Murphy family needed more money and had cows. It was the perfect match, one that still holds strong today. Sally calls the market a “godsend,” and says it means everything to her.
“It allowed Tom [husband] and I to stay on there, to pay off our farm, to travel,” Murphy says. “I mean, we never got to do anything with our kids. There was just no money… It’s changed our lifestyle enormously, it really has.”
Speaking of Sally’s children, two of her sons are now members of the DCFM as well. She recalls her son, Cory, learning the ropes as a teenager, when she and her husband would drop him off at the Hilldale Farmers’ Market while they worked at the market on the Square. Once he could drive, she says they let him fully take over their stand at Hilldale, where he saved the money he earned for college. Now, Cory and his wife, Rachel, sell beef, salsa and more at a stand located less than a dozen vendors away from his mom.
“It’s just kind of a family thing,” Rachel Murphy tells me. “It’s our every day life. We live and breath market, and you’re either working in the bakery or doing something on the farm, and you have something in common. They understand what we’re doing, and we understand what they’re doing. It’s nice when we’re down here… They have our back and we have their back.”
Rachel tells me one of the best parts of being a member of the DCFM is that it’s one big family, where everybody helps each other out. Walking around the Square, it was so easy for me to see what she was talking about. The members have often spent week after week, year after year selling their products side-by-side. You can see a great deal of camaraderie within every quadrant of the Capitol Square. But most importantly, you see a lot of hard work.
As customers slowly make their way around the Square, farmers work quickly to keep samples and items for sale well-stocked, while also striking up important conversations with the people that do stop to check things out. The farmers arrive bright and early, so that they’re ready to go when the market opens at 6:15. But what we, the consumers, get to see from 6:15 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. is only a fraction of what goes into the market.
“There’s not a day off,” Rachel says. “Sunday, you go home and do dishes and cleanup from all this. And then Monday, you’re back in the bakery making dips. Right now, it’s salsa time, so I’m in the garden all the time picking tomatoes. Then, I have a Wednesday market and a Thursday market, then Friday, you’re in the kitchen again preparing for today [Saturday] and your whole thing starts all over.”
It can be a long and arduous process, but it’s one that Sally says she has cherished, week after week, for 25 years.
“We like what we do,” she tells me, smiling. “Sometimes, it’s a lot of work, but we like the people and we like what we do.”
The Wednesday Market runs through November 8th. Saturday on the Square runs through November 11th.